People stand amid smoke and flames after a fire broke out at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, March 22, 2021. The fire swept through the camp, killing at least five people, destroying homes and endangering the lives of tens of thousands of refugees, camp officials said. CNS photo/Reuters

Fire claims at least 15 lives at Rohingya refugee camp

  • March 23, 2021

Even as the last of five fires was still out of control among clusters of tents and shelters that house 600,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Caritas Bangladesh head of programs Abdullah Fuad was thinking of the women and children who have now endured one more disaster. “We are still counting the number of damaged households and the number of people affected,” he told The Catholic Register just hours after the fire broke out on March 22.

By early the next morning, there were 15 confirmed dead, according to media reports. A situation report from Caritas Bangladesh claimed an estimated 17,571 households had been burned out by the fire, displacing 87,855 individuals.

The fire broke out at about 3:30 p.m. in camp 8W of the massive refugee settlement just across the border from Myanmar, according to the Caritas Bangladesh situation report. The fires were not fully contained until nearly midnight.

The camp mainly houses women and children, while men travel back and forth between their homeland and the world’s largest refugee camp, trying to support their families and maintain a connection to their farms.

This is the second fire in less than three months to strike Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. In January, more than 550 shelters were were destroyed or damaged, displacing about 3,500 people.

In 2017 the Myanmar military launched genocidal attacks on Muslim Rohingya villagers in response to a guerilla attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

Within a year of Myanmar’s military crackdown, there were nearly one million refugees crowded onto a muddy flood plain near the tiny tourist town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

Beginning with a network of parish volunteers, Caritas Bangladesh emerged as one of the first organizations in the camp four years ago. They are long-time partners of Canada’s Catholic aid organization, Development and Peace. Today Caritas Bangladesh are providing food, hygiene and psycho-social supports to about 30,000 families, at least 120,000 people, Fuad said. Last year Development and Peace delivered $1 million from Global Affairs Canada to upgrade housing and hygiene for about 6,000 families in the camp.

“Right now the main priority is to save their lives and keep them in a safe position,” Fuad told The Catholic Register. Parts of the camp where Caritas Bangladesh provides direct service to people were not affected by the fires, but the newly homeless refugees soon flooded the Caritas areas. Caritas Bangladesh was able to offer shelter in multi-purpose women and girl centres, built with help from Development and Peace. Development and Peace is Canada’s Caritas agency.

With fire crews and police still active on the scene March 22, Caritas was trying to co-ordinate with United Nations agencies and other non-governmental actors to get a handle on what’s needed and who needs help, Fuad said. Building materials are already being sent to the International Organization for Migration, responsible for providing housing, according to a March 23 report from Caritas Bangladesh. “The Bangladesh emergency appeal is still open,” said Development and Peace spokesperson Minaz Kerawala.

In the past the emergency appeal has been able to deliver food to 25,000, build temporary shelters for nearly 1,000 families, and provide water and sanitation to nearly 25,000.

(NOTE: Story has been updated with correct spelling of Cox's Bazar.)

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